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Seoul mayor’s apparent suicide sends shock waves through South Korea

Mourners visiting a memorial for the late Seoul mayor Park Won-soon at the Seoul National University hospital in Seoul on July 10, 2020.

News that the former activist, women’s rights advocate and lawyer had apparently taken his own life has rocked South Korea’s capital.

Before being found dead in the hills of Seoul early Friday, the city’s mayor, Park Won-soon, left a crumpled note saying sorry.

“I send my apologies to everyone. I thank everyone who shared my life. I am so sorry to my family to whom I only gave pain,” read the apparent suicide note left on the desk of his official residence and released by the city government with the permission of his family.

“Bye everyone.”

Mayor Park is survived by his wife, son and daughter.

News that the former activist, women’s rights advocate and lawyer had apparently taken his own life has rocked South Korea’s capital, Seoul, home to more than 10 million people. As one of the country’s most well-known elected officials, he had been tipped as a potential presidential candidate in 2022.

Park’s death followed a criminal probe and media reports of alleged sexual misconduct.

On Wednesday, one of Park’s former secretaries filed a complaint alleging the 64-year-old had sexually harassed her, the South Korean Yonhap news agency reported.

Police also confirmed a criminal complaint had been made on Wednesday alleging “sexual molestation” against Park.

Late Thursday afternoon his daughter Park Da-in, reported him missing to the police, saying he had made a “will-like” telephone call to her, before turning off his phone. Colleagues also said he had cancelled meetings for the day.

This prompted a massive police search and Park’s body was found just after midnight near the Bukak Mountain area of the Sungbuk district of Seoul, Choi Ik-su, the director of criminal litigation at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, told press during a briefing Friday.

There was no sign of foul play and police did not give a cause of death.

“Currently, we found no evidence to support murder, but we will nevertheless conduct a thorough investigation into his death,” Choi said.

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“Considering the honor of the mayor and his bereaved family, we are not going to disclose the cause of the death,” he added.

A representative for Park’s family issued a statement on their behalf saying it was time to let him go and urging people to avoid spreading “groundless statements.”

“If acts of defaming him continue irrespective of the truth, we will sternly respond with legal action,” said Moon Mi-ran, who formerly served as deputy mayor under Park.

As a lawyer in the 1990s, Park won one of South Korea’s earliest cases on sexual harassment. During his career, Park also strongly advocated for the cause of “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels during World War II.

In addition, Park was an outspoken advocate of gender equality. Amid the #MeToo movement in 2018, he had praised South Korean women for their courage after a series of women accused powerful politicians of sexual wrongdoings.

Many residents of Seoul expressed shock over his sudden death. Leading lawmakers of both ruling and opposition parties also expressed condolences, as did the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris. 

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to the OECD.

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